The Nature of Unnatural Sex: Romans 1:26b-27

Frequently, non-affirming Christians quote Rom. 1:26b-27 to condemn the LGBTQI+ communities. The NRSV translates this passage: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” Paul’s description of “unnatural” and “shameless” sex enforces a gender binary that restricts the gender expressions of women, men, and (for today) non-binary and queer folks. This specific and intentional vocabulary prompts two questions: Why does Paul define these acts as “unnatural” and “shameless?” And how does Paul determine what is “unnatural” and “shameless?” The culture Paul lived in reflects his diction choice. As New Testament scholar, Halvor Moxnes asserts: “Paul was a Jew and Roman citizen, living in the Graeco-Roman world…honour and shame were pivotal in forming his understanding of this society.”[1] The ancient Greco-Roman world operated under a strict honor-shame structure in which the assumption of a person’s natural role in society determined a person’s worth.[2] The situation of the Pauline verses within their ancient honor-based culture thus explains the categorization of “unnatural” and “shameless” acts in Rom. 1:26b-27.

The implications honor codes wielded over persons of the Roman Empire demands further comment. As previously alluded, a person’s role in ancient Greco-Roman times corresponds directly to a person’s culturally ascribed shame. Yet readers frequently arrive at Rom. 1:26b-27 unaware that these “natural” roles do not correspond to modern notions. Specifically, the “natural” roles ascribed to sexual interactions in the Greco-Roman era created rigid gender binaries objectifying the powerless. Johannes Vorster articulates the shocking binary, stating: “The body of the woman was seen to be penetrable, whereas man’s was impenetrable.”[3] Thus, a Greco-Roman male citizen[4] was expected to “naturally” penetrate during sex while a Greco-Roman woman was expected to be “naturally” penetrated. When sex disregarded these natural roles, Greco-Roman culture viewed it as “unnatural” or, in anachronistic language, queer.

Participating in queer or “unnatural” sex held dire consequences. Honor culture’s notion of sex emphasized transaction, and “unnatural” sex led to damaging results. When a person participated in “natural” sex, this person gained honor, contributing to an orderly society. Yet when a person participated in “unnatural” sex, this person disrupted the social order, threatening the stability of the empire. The shame vocabulary in Rom. 1:26b-27 indicates that Paul described, or perhaps subscribed to, this transactional view of sex, a transactional view that enforced the Greco-Roman gender binary. Vorster discusses the implications of the gender binary, quoting Andrew Stewart:


“A freeborn man, desiring to be penetrated, being passive, was treated with disdain and was ridiculed, not because of sexual intercourse with another man, but because passivity and submission mean slipping into womanhood…A man who likes being penetrated and is passive like a woman, he risks losing his citizen rights, the rights of the free sovereign, active male.”[5]


Thus, in Greco Roman society, sex and sexual constructs primarily functioned as social stabilizers, and ideas of sexual “shame” and “naturalness” traced to structures of imperial-political order.

In sum, the references in Rom. 1:26b-27 to “unnatural” and “shameless” sex in Romans reflects the Greco-Roman culture that viewed sex as a tool to enforce gender-binaries and to stabilize the empire. This idea of sex requires the penetrator to continue to penetrate, or else lose his honor. Meanwhile, the penetrated[6] is seen as an object. Thus, the “unnatural” sex described in Rom. 1:26-27 is non-transactional sex; it disengages the bedroom from the state, and it reclaims the penetrated’s humanity and names this person as a willing participant.[7] In this way, Rom. 1:26b-27 indicates the honor-shame culture which Pauline biblical discourse held firm roots, disallowing modern efforts to read contemporary ideas about sex onto the verses.



[1] Halvor Moxnes, “Honour and Righteousness in Romans,” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 10, (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 1988), 63.

[2] David A. DeSilva, “Honor Discourse, Classical Rhetoric, and Social Engineering,” in The Hope of Glory, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999), 2.

[3] Johannes N. Vorster, “The Making of Male Same-Sex,” in Scriptura, vol. 93 no. 1 (2006), 438.

[4] Male slaves fell under the same categories as women, due to their unequal status to their male counterparts. The male penetrator use penetration as means of asserting dominance to women of any class and to men below their class. See Vorster, 447.

[5] Vorster, 448.

[6] Penetration was often used to show dominance over slaves as well as women. See note 4.

[7] Vorster, 437-8.